Review: Jennifer Koh at Hahn Hall

UCSB Arts & Lectures Presented the Violinist on Wednesday, April 23

Jennifer Koh at Hahn Hall
Paul Wellman

Jennifer Koh makes no apology for her excursions into the sometimes strange and disjointed sounds of contemporary music. Her three-part Bach and Beyond project has deliberately weighed, and sometimes pitted, works by Eugène Ysaÿe, Kaija Saariaho, Elliott Carter, Phil Kline, and Béla Bartók against the founding documents of the unaccompanied violin repertory — the six sonatas and partitas by J.S. Bach. Part III had its world premiere at Hahn Hall last Wednesday and stretched the thesis for all it was worth, beginning and ending with Sonata No. 2 and Sonata No. 3 by Bach, but otherwise stepping off into the atonal worlds of Luciano Berio and John Zorn.

On the surface, these worlds are dissociated, with little middle ground between baroque mechanics and quantum uncertainties — which, undoubtedly, was the point. The stark juxtaposition certainly carried electric potential, as separated poles do, but whether or not the current actually arced depended on the listener. Like a poet, Koh scatters hints but asks you to meet her halfway. One clue was the element of pulse, which arose first in the Andante of Sonata No.2, Bach’s “creative heartbeat” according to Koh. Berio’s Sequenza VIII began with a kin series of regular half-notes, while pulse was again prominent in the opening measures of Sonata No. 3.

Programming aside, Koh’s virtuosity itself is an enthralling spectacle. Her articulations of Bach (always from memory) are spacious and fresh, honed with a fine precision. She is a solid and intelligent performer. The contemporary works were showcases, too, for dazzling technique. The Berio featured a mesmerizing sequence of delicate interval dancing, cut into by explosive double-stops in the lower strings. Zorn’s Passagen walked a tightrope of high harmonics, sliding glissandos, and simultaneous bowing and plucking. Koh has earned her right to expeditions on the violin frontier, and we’re happy to witness new and exotic species. She did promise “beyond,” after all.


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